G20 sets Brisbane’s sight back on the world stage

Foreign eyes looking at Australia tend to gaze on the architectural brilliance of Sydney and the cosmopolitan city of Melbourne as the crown jewels of Australia. But in the south-east corner of Queensland lies the pair’s somewhat forgotten cousin, Brisbane.

Queensland’s capital city first gained international recognition in the 1980s. The 1982 Commonwealth Games boosted Brisbane’s economy and brought in world-class athletes from across the globe. The event is still remembered with great fondness, more than 30 years after the games’ mascot, Matilda, the giant kangaroo, gave the opening ceremony crowd her friendly wink. Forty-six nations participated with record numbers of athletes and officials. But it was not Australia’s winning title that defined the sporting event as successful, but the new era it beckoned in for Queensland. The games not only demonstrated to the world the talent and expertise of Queenslanders in the sporting arena but also showcased the state’s vitality, wealth and natural beauty.

However, in April 1988 Brisbane was still considered by many to be a big country town. But it was when the World Expo ‘88 came to town, in all of its colourful glory, that the city grew up and truly celebrated its coming of age. Expo had its beginnings in 1975 when the Whitlam Government bid for the fair as part of Australia’s Bicentenary celebrations. The then premier, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, wanted it for Queensland but the chosen site, South Brisbane, sparked controversy among locals. The development of the area meant uprooting and moving on thousands of residents and businesses. The Lord Mayor at the time, Sallynne Atkinson, told ABC’s 7:30 Report that in 1988 South Brisbane was not what it is today.

“Most people would have considered it undesirable and ugly and certainly dangerous in many ways but for a lot of people it was where they lived and a lot of poorer people lived there and they were very worried about finding other places to live so all of that had to be handled sensitively and handled very well,” she said.

Looking back, Ms Atkinson said that taking on the World’s Fair was a bold move for Brisbane.

“People didn’t think Brisbane could do it so there was the surprise – oh, goodness this is Brisbane and wow look what you’re doing.”

The gates opened on Saturday April 30, 1988 with officials estimating seven million people would attend. The final figure topped 18 and a half million, with Australia’s population around 16 million at the time. Some pavilions were so popular the lineups stretched hundreds of metres, with people cueing for hours, unheard of in Queensland. After six months of celebrations, the World Expo closed its doors on October 30, 1988 and went out with a bang with a ceremony at River Stage. Post-World Expo saw the site undergo a 150 million dollar transformation into a park for the people with the first stage opening in 1992; just four years after the exposition shut its gates. And with that, Southbank was born. Now, more than 25 years on, Queensland has made another bid to push Brisbane back into the international spotlight with the G20 to be held in the same place that World Expo ‘88 once stood.

Brisbane Lord Mayor Graham Quirk told Quest Newspapers that the G20 will, “make Brisbane the centre of the world for one weekend in November”.

“It is important that the people of Brisbane understand what this means for them, their families, their lives,” Mayor Quirk said.

South Brisbane and the surrounding area will be closed to locals, with around 4,000 delegates and 3,000 media personnel set to join the leaders of the G20 countries over the weekend of November 15 and 16. A Queensland Government Spokesperson for the Minister for Tourism Jann Stuckey said the increased media interest during the G20 would produce long-term economic benefits for Queensland as people around the world learn of its appeal as a business, study and leisure destination.

“This increased visitation means additional income for Brisbane’s hotels and venues,” the spokesperson said.

“The economic benefits for Brisbane are expected to run in excess of 100 million dollars, with an upsurge in trade for local shops, hotels and restaurants.

“Recent hotel openings in Brisbane will be buoyed by the G20, including the world’s first NEXT Hotel in the Queen Street Mall which was officially opened this week.”

The Government Spokesperson said hosting the G20 in Brisbane provided a significant opportunity to reinforce Queensland’s international expertise in attracting, planning and staging world events.

With over 15 years experience in the tourism industry and having worked on strategies to leverage the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, Griffith University Tourism, Sport and Hotel Management Lecturer Dr Sarah Gardiner knows what it takes to facilitate an event like the G20. She said the summit would really put Brisbane on the map as a major international city.

“Sydney and Melbourne have that prominence already at the moment but this G20 will really tell the world that Brisbane has really grown up and become a major international city,” Dr Gardiner said.

And she expects the G20 will leave a long-lasting legacy for Brisbane.

“During the G20, the tourism and economic development agencies will be leveraging the event to make sure we maximise publicity for Brisbane, Queensland and Australia.

“That will create a profile for the city of Brisbane and state of Queensland and Australia around the world, which will create flow-on effects to tourism and economic development opportunities.

“The city tourism industry is really built around the business tourism market, so unlike other destinations in Queensland and Australia where there is predominantly a leisure-based destination like the Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast and Cairns, Brisbane is really a business tourism city.”

Queensland Hotel Association Accommodation Division Manager Judy Hill has been in and out of meetings with hotel providers since the bid for the G20 began. Unlike Dr Gardiner, she said the tourism market has changed in recent years from a very strong corporate market to a leisure-based market.

“A lot of that’s changed because of the size of events that we’ve brought to the city from a QPAC perspective,” Ms Hill said.

“We have had Swan Lake, the Lion King or some of those events that other cities haven’t managed to secure.

And she said new international hotels, like Starwood, Accor and Ibis, are a sign that market confidence is being restored.

“I think the G20 has probably been a catalyst for further development into the city and a renewed confidence that by announcing these additional new rooms into the city, the G20 is just the starting point of Brisbane really being a city to reckon with.

“Brisbane in the last five years and in the future will rate equal to Sydney and Melbourne.”

Perhaps the identities of tourist-populated Sydney and Melbourne as world-class cities lie not only within their architecture but also within their advanced hotel sectors. As Brisbane welcomes a greater variety of accommodation options, it remains to be seen whether the city will propel forward as a premier destination for business and leisure tourism. But the G20 might just be the event to stir the pot and reclaim Brisbane’s World Expo ‘88 glory on the international stage for years to come.

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